How to guide young people to use their voice and speak up for what matters
Updated: Jun 23
a simple 4-step framework for guiding young people to find their unique and powerful voice
As the Black Lives Matter movement brings awareness of the entrenched colonial history of anti-black racism, white privilege and systemic injustice, you may be asking what you can do to not only further educate yourself, but also guide the young people in your life. Parents, educators, and leaders are encouraging young people to use their voice to speak out in solidarity with marginalized communities and create change in the world. This is a necessary step in the right direction, however, often telling children to speak up isn't enough to translate the message into the behaviours, life skills, and character you envision. Young people need intentional and gradual guidance in this process. This process is not easy and one that requires compassion, surrender and vulnerability on our part as adults, as we learn alongside our children. The Gradual Release of Responsibility framework is a 4-step educational tool, which I've adapted to help you break down the process of guiding the young people in your life to step into their own unique voice. Although such important and deeply layered issues can never be encompassed by a simple strategy or checklist, frameworks can help guide us, as we guide our children. The guidance of a framework can consequently free up our mental space and heart space so we can open up to the more difficult conversations. The Gradual Release of Responsibility model is based on the idea that for a child to be able to independently and comfortably engage in a task/action/behaviour/lifeskill, they must be gradually guided (or in educational terms, 'scaffolded') from having more modelling and direct teaching to less of it over time, until they can inhabit the skill fully and independently. In the case of guiding children to stand up and use their voice, you can follow these 4 steps:
Model the behaviour
Children need to see you deliberately model the behaviour you envision them doing. Have they seen you 'use your voice' in various circumstances and are they able to identify that behaviour? Take time to explicitly teach them this valuable life skill. Name the skill you are teaching and describe it to them; what does a confident yet compassionate voice sound like? What does a message about justice sound like and feel like? Talk about it with them and brainstorm ideas on a white board where they can see those powerful words. What words are important as an ally? The #saymyname campaign speaks to this. Say the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other figures in your home and talk about why voicing their name matters.
Children love stories. Tell them stories about the mistakes you may have made in the past, and the courage you took to use your voice and change the situation. Then, model yourself using your voice in various present-day situations. Show them how to speak confidently in daily life in small situations (i.e., voicing an incorrect order at a restaurant and requesting a new dish) and also for larger situations (i.e., attending a rally or giving a speech). Show them poignant yet relatable examples of others who use their voice. When showing them such examples, it helps if the examples are of people to whom they can relate. Other children who are similar to them but slightly older provide role models that are graspable. In a nutshell, it means practicing what you preach and being intentional about it.
2. Share the task
Now it's time for them to try using their voice, together with you. Practice doing it with them in a shared experience. Create a speech or perform a song together, attend a rally together, speak to the neighbour together or even order together at a restaurant. These shared experiences are not one-time activities but an on-going process of mutual growth and learning. This stage can also be viewed as 'hand-holding'.
3. Be their Guide on the side
At this stage you are their coach or guide on the side, as they embark on their own experience. It's helpful when children have consistent experiences using their own voice independently in daily life. This is especially helpful for children who are on the shy side, but relevant to other kids as well. Being intentional about exactly what we are guiding them in allows us to provide descriptive feedback to them and help them deliberately hone this crucial skill. Perhaps they are coordinating a fundraiser with their friends or creating a social media message about a topic they believe in. Or perhaps they need to knock on the neighbour's door to get the ball that went over the fence, and they are nervous. Practice with them and provide them with a combination of moral support, encouragement and tangible ideas. Be there with them throughout the process, but remove yourself as an equal creator as you were in stage 2 (share)--this is their experience. Then, talk to them about how it went afterwards and provide them with feedback. It's extremely meaningful when there is regular dialogue in the home around how valuable, necessary and important their voice is to building a better world--an atmosphere is created in the home where such values are felt over time and remembered when they become adults and mentor young people.
4. Learn from them as they use their unique voice as leaders
Traditionally, the model refers to this stage as 'independence', whereby the child does a task independently without any help. However, when building leaders of the future who stand up for what they believe in and use their voice, I feel that our deeper goal for our children is not so much independence in the sense of the lone individual, standing on a summited peak, but of the person coming into their own and being a collective leader. This is someone who can use their unique voice confidently (a voice which they have honed and know well ), alongside those of others, in advocacy for those who are less heard, and for all to rise. My version of 'independence' is thus the realization of inner leadership and collective leadership in the young people we mentor. You may notice that the children you guide end up flourishing and stepping into their own, in ways that exceed even our highest expectations and abilities. From this place we can learn from and be inspired by them, no matter what age or stage of life they are in.
As a child, I myself had trouble using my voice and speaking up. I shied away from confrontation and standing up to other kids who were not treating me well, and indeed was a pushover to more dominant personalities. To this day, I still find speaking up a (worthwhile) challenge that requires constant and deliberate courage and vulnerability. I wish I was deliberately guided in stepping into my voice early on and that it was part of the culture, dialogue, and fabric of my everyday life. In supporting the young people in your life to use their voice, intentionally use this framework to model, share, guide and learn with them. This model is a life-skills model that can be used to support your child in various situations throughout their upbringing. Keep the four stages in mind particularly when you tell a child to do something; have you modelled, shared, and guided them to be able to follow through on what you are asking of them? Are you willing to learn from them too? And don't be so hard on yourself. This is a lifelong practice for parents, educators and children alike--I myself continue to be mindful of this framework when I encourage my own children and students. The model is not perfectly linear and ebbs and flows depending on each particular circumstance, however, it can be used very systematically as well to support young people with specific projects (i.e., if high school students are planning a social justice campaign, you can deliberately create a plan for how you will support them through each stage of the framework). Ultimately, when we tell young people to 'use their voice', we hope to cultivate collective leadership in them--the ability to use their voice to raise all voices, for a world where all people are heard and valued.
I'd love to hear about your experiences in using your voice and how you encourage the young people in your life to use theirs, particularly during this time. How might you implement the framework in your own life? Please comment below and share alike; In Good Hands is a dialogue (not a monologue), for collective change. Let's create a conversation and build a community.